How Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vanessa German Taught Me About Art

What is art?

While growing up in Pittsburgh during the 1970’s and 1980’s, art was seemingly far removed from my everyday life. No one in my family or immediate circle was an artist (that I know of, at least) and we didn’t actively participate in the arts community.

Art seemed like something for rich people. I can’t recall if it was 5th or 6th grade, but our class took a trip to Heinz Hall for a concert. I remember getting dressed up and I remember the fancy bathroom. That’s it. I don’t remember the performance or anything else. I was impressed by the bathroom. In high school, our AP English teacher took us to a poetry performance at Chatham University. I fell asleep and she was livid.

Now I realize that I was surrounded by the arts. I was in the band in 4th grade throughout high school and learned to read music on both treble and bass clefs, even if I could barely play. We had art class on a weekly basis – I do remember the awe I experienced in 8th grade when I learned how a simple line could change perspective on a piece of paper. And I read voraciously – lots of great works of literature mixed with young adult books.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Solzhenitsyn 1994 Source: The Guardian

When I landed in a graduate program studying political philosophy (don’t ask), I began to explore art as a political tool through the writing of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I started to consider whether art was a description of how life was lived or an expression of how things “ought” to be. Did art have to be consumed to exist or was it independent of the audience? Was anything that provoked thought art? Could I still dislike poetry and appreciate art? How did one distinguish fine art from the common experiences?

Could all of these things be true at the same time? Could the experience of art be somewhere between eternal truths and subjective reality?

Then I met Vanessa German. Rather, I heard her. It was at a rally for peace in 2005.We were in Squirrel Hill in March. I can’t recall her words, but I do remember how I felt and it was similar to how I felt when I first read “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch” – something inside me went “a ha.” I started blogging that same year. I don’t think it was a direct result of her performance, but more a culmination of how that “a ha” moment manifested itself in my life with my tools, skills and gifts.

Vanessa German
Source: Vanessa German

I’ve since heard Vanessa perform and speak on many occasions, her words giving me solace and encouragement to find my own voice.

Perhaps there’s an inherent dissonance connecting Solzhenitsyn to German. For me, he described the foundation of the Cold War that permeated my childhood experiences – Stalin destroyed the creative class in Russia, leaving lives without art, but also stripping away the trappings of popular culture that often numbed the American middle class and working class to the consequences of those larger decisions. Solzhenitsyn led me to Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamozov” and one of the most frightening passages I’ve ever encountered – the scapegoat of the suffering little girl. It bothered me so deeply that I’ve never again picked up this novel. I’ll explore that another day because it had a profound impact on me.

German picked up some of the loosened threads and helped me understand that art could be both a description and a demand for how things ought to be. She reminded me of the power of art and the power of me, of my ideas and my vision.

What Solzhenitsyn and German did for me was remind me that art is accessible to me, that it does reflect my lived experiences and that how I respond to the art is part of the art itself.

Now, I have access to the fine arts – I can attend plays, the symphony and visit the museum at my own choosing. The issue of accessibility is definitely enmeshed with class and privilege, but that’s another post as well. Blogging about these experiences is part of my response and thus, I believe, part of the art itself. I suppose it is a success story or an awakening of some sort, but I can’t invalidate the suffering and systemic issues that came before.

What do you think?

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